This gender- and genre-bending graphic memoir is a bittersweet head-trip. Plus, it’s a condensed version of more than ten classics that, let’s face it, you’ll never get around to reading if you haven’t already.
A photo recently ran in the New York Times of cartoonist Alison Bechdel reaching to touch the chrysanthemum wall paper in the living room of her childhood Victorian home. She had not seen the Pennsylvania house for 20 years, seven of them spent recreating its details from pictures and memory in her graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Her lips pursed, her hand hovering as if sensing heat, Bechdel’s determined communion with the walls and the secrets they once abided captures the essentially Proustian endeavor of her genre- and gender-bending work.
There is enough distinctive material in her squirmy black line art with pale grey-green wash to actually say Bechdelian. (“Proustian” regrettably has the connotation of a prescription sleep aid without the addiction risk). She is compulsively readable using tools identical to the French memory-fetishist — telescoping time; revivifying childhood, warts and periods and all; spinning metaphors that transcend preciousness to slash truth’s throat — through quirky, painstaking drawings. The effect is a literary organ donation: memoir’s probing introspection transplanted in the graphic novel’s framing of externality to bring to life events that would not feel half as energetic in any other format.
Beyond Bechdel’s special effects, the entire story is present from the first few pages, in the antique decadence that contrasts peculiarly against father Bruce’s strict, volatile perimeters; his cut-off jean shorts; his nose stuck in The Nude by Kenneth Clark; and in Alison’s tomboyish supplication as a child for his affection, channeled instead into the house’s restoration, a House of Usher in reverse. “It was his passion. And I do mean passion. Libidinal. Manic. Martyred,” writes Bechdel, showing Bruce carrying a porch column bent over his back, wearing only shorts that would make the Village People blush.
After Alison types and mails a letter from college telling her parents she is gay, her mother informs her that Bruce, a high school English teacher and part-time funeral home director, had been with men throughout their marriage. The first had been a farmhand at 14; one was even her babysitter, Roy. “I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit… Why had I told them? I hadn’t even had sex with anyone yet. Conversely, my father had been having sex with men for years and not telling anyone.” Four months later, Bruce died in puzzling (read: suicidal) conditions.
Alison impulsively links his death to her sexual revelation — “the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth.” Bechdel traces the fear of this correlation back and forth in time through bizarre, coded interactions with her parents. Watching her narrate cyclonically around this traumatic core — “a sort of inverted Oedipal complex,” the assertion of her “erotic truth” destroying her repressed father’s life — is a devastating, bittersweet head-trip. It is the reading equivalent of a photo mosaic: hundreds of tiny images of Alison forming an inescapably dominating image of Bruce.
Fun Home also pulls off a portrait of how the invisible histories and private lives of parents impress unwittingly upon children emotionally and psychologically. Plenty of books attempt that, but fewer pull it off without connect-the-dots associations or posturing, fewer still with Fun House’s effortless juggling of past, present and future.
Setting it further apart are the parallels uncovered beneath the cause-and-effect dynamic of parent and child. In a photo opening the “In the Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower” chapter, another nod to Proust, a “lissome, elegant” woman poses in a bathing suit and swim cap. We learn later the woman is Bruce, then watch Alison and a friend don her father’s clothes — “a nearly mystical pleasure, like finding myself fluent in a language I’d never been taught.” Alison compares startlingly identical photos of Bruce and herself both aged 21: “The exterior setting, the pained grin, the flexible wrists, even the angle of shadow falling across our faces — it’s about as close a translation as I can get.” Bechdel draws photos with greater crosshatching and realism, conveying the blind hope that the deeper in the past one peers, the clearer the reality.
The “translations” of her family that make the most sense are appropriately fictional. Seeking to fit her ungainly home life into a comprehensible mold, Alison looks to stories for familial understanding. She finds familiarity in the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, The Addams Family, In Search of Lost Time, A Happy Death, The Wind in the Willows, Washington Park, The Portrait of a Lady, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Taming of the Shrew, the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — and that is just the first eclectic library shelf. A highbrow palette is not a prerequisite, just a curiosity to get as close as possible to the narratives that wreathe our lives without, alas, actually reading them.
Anyone who draws an image of herself reading Ulysees and saying “What the fuck?”; then convincingly diagrams a father/daughter bond alongside that of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus; then does the same alongside James Joyce’s family and the publishing history of his major novel, all as if these extraordinary associations were quite natural, is not a smarty-pants showoff but someone who deserves truckloads of awards (so far, Fun Home has only been nominated for a silly Quill).
The Times photo is also arresting, at least to a Fun Home reader, for showing the 1867 house as it exists. By comparison, Bechdel’s tender caricature of its many rooms feels more immediate, the way a live animal looks next to its taxidermed counterpart. For the drawn house is Bruce’s baroque excesses and superficial adornment externalized. The chandelier behind Bechdel in the photo is just a period conversation piece, not the awkward lamp that “looks like skulls” with a “whorehouse” personality to everyone but the “alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor.” Cast through the prismatic lens of Bechdel’s imagination, the home is haunted by a living, Gothic ghost so pervasive that the real house in Beech Creek, Penn., looks suddenly prim and lifeless, like Bruce in his coffin.
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